Senate considers how to judge the judges

The state Senate finance committee considers a bill tomorrow that would create retention elections for judges, as well as a special commission charged with critiquing their performance.

In Minnesota, District Court judges are already elected by the people, and come up for re-election every six years. The Board of Judicial Standards can discipline them, as happened recently with Donald Venne, the 10th District Judge who didn't pay his taxes for five years. The legislature has the authority to remove incompetent judges. And if they make a bad decision, an unhappy plaintiff can always appeal to the higher courts.

So what, if anything, would a special commission evaluating judges' performance have to offer? Would such a group politicize the judiciary--a branch of government designed, for the protection of all our citizens, to be fiercely impartial and independent--or would it lead to more transparency and greater accountability?

Well, the bill's impressive list of supporters say it will hold judges to a higher ethical standard. This all comes from a Supreme Court decision known as the White case, in which the Republican Party sued the state over how judges are elected. Before the decision, judges had to be extremely cautious in expressing any political views and didn't take campaign contributions from political parties. But in 2005, the Supreme Court found that ethical standards governing elections for Minnesota judges were unconstitutional, so the standards got shot down.

Now, judicial candidates are "allowed to make promises to and solicit campaign contributions from special interest groups and political parties," according to the group behind the bill. The bill is an effort to keep politics out of judicial elections by setting up a group of 24 people who will watch judges and evaluate their performance.

Again, aren't those procedures already in place?

Not publicly enough, according to the bill's sponsor, Sen. Ann Rest of New Hope. "Everybody who wants to is going to be able to weigh in," Rest says. "The performance evaluation commission is independent of the judiciary, which is certainly not the case with the Board of Judicial Standards. They're going to operate totally outside of the judicial branch with a separate office and personnel."

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